Coconut oil for skincare has been through the mill quite a bit recently. First it was the best thing ever, then it was the worst thing ever. Then it was the best thing if you don't have sensitive skin and then it was the worst only if you have dry skin and so on. So from a science based view - is topically applied coconut oil good for acne prone skin?
First lets make something clear, I'm talking about topically applied coconut oil to your skin (not eating it or cooking with it - which is a whole different thing) and I'm talking about using just Coconut Oil, not Coconut oil in a correctly formulated product (I'll deal with that at the end though).
OK, so let's look at the good things about it..
Coconut Oil is great at keeping moisture locked in. The measurement we use in water loss is Transepidermal Water Loss or TEWL. In studies (1)(2), virgin Coconut oil out preformed mineral oil for TEWL. TEWL is important for acne because it tells us how well our skin barrier is functioning and how vulnerable the skin barrier is to infections like acne.
Coconut oil counters inflammation. Inflammation a key part of the acne forming process. Coconut oil contains ferulic acid, p-coumaric acid, and other phenolic antioxidants and these countered inflammation in animal studies (3)(4) (virgin Coconut oil was seen to have stronger anti-inflammatory properties than processed Coconut oil).
Coconut oil is antibacterial. Half of the fatty acid in Coconut oil is Lauric acid & studies (5) have shown this is 15 times as effective as dreaded benzoyl peroxide (I'm not a fan). But, this is where some bloggers & science part ways. The Lauric acid is bound to triglycerides, & these can't penetrate the skin easily so the 15 times is probably lower - but still antibacterial. (Coconut oil also contains 8% caprylic acid which, while not as powerful as Lauric acid, also is antibacterial(6))
Coconut oil is comedogenic. Wait what?
Well actually Lauric acid is comedogenic, and Coconut oil contains about 50% Lauric acid. So it will block pores right? well, maybe. Comedogenic ratings aren't the most respectable scientific measurement for real world skin care use (here again bloggers & science sometimes part ways) as the doses used in comedogenic tests are typically MUCH higher than in the stuff you buy in Boots. But, here's the maybe, Coconut oil is half Lauric acid so that's a hefty dose too so here the comedogenic might be right.
So, should you try Coconut oil?
Well it depends a lot on you skin type - if you're skin is the type that breaks out at a sniff of an oil, definitely not. If it's a bit more robust then perhaps yes as Coconut oil has a lot of benefits. There are a few things to keep in mind if you do.
Not all Coconut oils are the same. The difference is in how the oil is extracted from the nut (the same applies here to fruit, vegetable and seed oils too).
Oils can be extracted in three different ways:
With heat: the raw material is heated and the oil separates out over time.
With chemicals: The raw materials are ground up, treated with a chemical solution (such as hexane) and heated to release the oil.
By pressing: A mechanical press squeezes the oil out of the raw material.
Once extracted, the oil is processed further to get rid of impurities either through filtering to remove large particles (unrefined oil) or through further heating/chemicals to remove impurities (called refined oil)
Oils labelled “virgin” or “extra virgin” (more on that in a bit) are typically unrefined and maintain many of the natural components of the raw material (here, a coconut) and typically contain more of nutrients and antioxidant compounds. A 2009 study compared the antioxidant capacity of virgin coconut oil with oil that had been refined, bleached, and deodorised. They found that the virgin coconut oil had a higher antioxidant capacity than oil that had been significantly processed.(7) Many of the studies highlighted above found virgin oils to give better results than non-virgin oils.
So, if you're going to try coconut oil, try the virgin type.
So what is the coconut oil used in cosmetics?
Coconut oil is one of the most hydrating and plumping oils available but it is also solid at room temperature which can makes it difficult to mix with other oils in a product, penetrate the skin and not hang around on the skin surface, clogging pores.
This is not good for cosmetic formulations. So manufacturers use 'liquid coconut oil' or more technically, fractionated coconut oil. This is a form of coconut oil that has had its long-chain fatty acids removed via hydrolysis and steam distillation. By removing them, the oil remains a liquid at rooms temperature (and gives a longer shelf life). Why? Long-chain fatty acids have more carbon atoms and so require higher temperatures to melt. Fats that are solid at room temperature have longer chain lengths.
Fractionating has a downside though. One of those long-chain fatty acids that are removed is lauric acid - a key part of Coconut Oil used for fighting acne. But there's an upside - lauric acid is also the main reason Coconut Oil is Comedogenic. By removing it, we still get all the good medium-chain fatty acids (capric, caprylic, myristic and palmitic), vitamins (vitamins A, C, and E), and antioxidants but without the pore blocking problems.
Fractionated coconut oil helps other beneficial oils to penetrate the skin, is absorbed quickly without clogging pores, and can be beneficial for oily skin. Our 28 Day Skin Promosituriser uses virgin fractionated coconut oil as one of the ingredients for this very reason. It also has a lot of other ingredients to help balance sebum production and actively balance skin bacteria to help keep skin happy.
1. Evangelista, M. T., Abad-Casintahan, F. & Lopez-Villafuerte, L. The effect of topical virgin coconut oil on SCORAD index, transepidermal water loss, and skin capacitance in mild to moderate pediatric atopic dermatitis: a randomized, double-blind, clinical trial. Int. J. Dermatol. 53,100–8 (2014). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24320105
2. Novel antibacterial and emollient effects of coconut and virgin olive oils in adult atopic dermatitis.Verallo-Rowell VM1, Dillague KM, Syah-Tjundawan BS. Dermatitis. 2008 Nov-Dec;19(6):308-15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19134433
3. Anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antipyretic activities of virgin coconut oil. Intahphuak S1, Khonsung P, Panthong A. Pharm Biol. 2010 Feb;48(2):151-7. doi: 10.3109/13880200903062614. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20645831
4. Nevin, K. G. & Rajamohan, T. Effect of topical application of virgin coconut oil on skin components and antioxidant status during dermal wound healing in young rats. Skin Pharmacol Physiol 23, 290–7 (2010). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20523108
(5) J Invest Dermatol. 2009 Oct;129(10):2480-8. doi: 10.1038/jid.2009.93. Epub 2009 Apr 23. Antimicrobial property of lauric acid against Propionibacterium acnes: its therapeutic potential for inflammatory acne vulgaris. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19387482
(6) J Dermatol Sci. 2014 Mar;73(3):232-40. doi: 10.1016/j.jdermsci.2013.10.010. Epub 2013 Nov 7. Anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of capric acid against Propionibacterium acnes: a comparative study with lauric acid. Huang WC1, Tsai TH2, Chuang LT3, Li YY1, Zouboulis CC4, Tsai PJ5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24284257
(7) Antioxidant capacity and phenolic acids of virgin coconut oil.Marina AM1, Man YB, Nazimah SA, Amin I. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2009;60 Suppl 2:114-23. doi: 10.1080/09637480802549127. Epub 2008 Dec 27. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19115123